(A) Pennycress research plots at Western Illinois Univ. (B) Pennycress grows well throughout the Midwest Corn Belt (green) and (C) is harvested with a standard combine. (D) Wild pennycress seeds weigh ~1 mg each containing 30-35% oil well suited for biojet fuel and biodiesel production. Seed meal of domesticated pennycress can be used as a nutritious animal feed.
Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense; field pennycress) is under development as a winter annual oilseed bioenergy crop for the 80 million-acre U.S. Midwest Corn Belt and other temperate regions including the Pacific Northwest. Pennycress has unique attributes such as extreme cold tolerance and rapid spring growth. Off-season integration of domesticated pennycress varieties into existing corn and soybean acres would extend the growing season on established croplands, avoid displacement of food crops, and yield up to 3 billion gallons of seed oil annually. Pennycress oil has a fatty acid composition well suited for conversion to biodiesel and biojet fuel that meets the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard. Academic, governmental, and industrial stakeholders are working closely to commercialize domesticated pennycress varieties by 2022 that can yield over 1680 kg ha-1 (1500 lb ac-1) of seeds producing 600 liters ha-1 (65 gal ac-1) of oil annually. However, these first-generation varieties have limited genetic variation, which hampers their adaptability to and resilience against abiotic and biotic challenges. Therefore, crucial work remains to identify genetic variants conferring stress tolerance and resilience for incorporation into next generation elite pennycress varieties. Future pennycress varieties will also require optimized lifespans for a range of latitudes and cropping systems, and improved root architectures and physiologies to maximize water and nutrient scavenging as well as carbon sequestration.
To attain these goals, interdisciplinary teams employing eco-evolutionary computational genomics will identify key genetic variants that have enabled pennycress to locally adapt and colonize all temperate regions of the world. Knowledge of metabolic and cellular networks derived from first principles will guide laboratory efforts aimed at identifying superior abiotic stress resilience gene variants. This project will deliver speed-breeding methods to facilitate the introduction of superior allelic variants into a wide range of commercial pennycress varieties to precisely adapt them to the desired local environments. Many of the findings from this work will be translatable to improving other Brassica crops important for bioenergy including camelina, carinata, rapeseed, and canola.